Constitutionally Incapable: Brief Reflections On My Time Living With an Autistic Alcoholic

In March of 2009, I went to the Hazelden Center For Youth & Families in Plymouth, MN to receive dual diagnosis treatment for alcoholism/addiction and bipolar disorder. Thankfully, both my addiction and mental health have been in check over the past five and a half years, but the majority of people I who attended treatment with me haven’t been as fortunate. What you are about to read is an account of one of those people, a young alcoholic named Brian who also suffered from mild Autism. About a year after I got sober, I did my best to record some of my memories from my time in treatment and the result are a number of vignettes like the one you see below. Hopefully people will find this story to be of service to them or, at the very least, to be morbidly entertaining. I have several other stories like this one that I can brush the dust off of, so just let me know in the comments section or on Twitter if you would like to read more.

Yep...that looks about right

Yep…that looks about right

Every two seconds or so I see Brian’s body flash past the porch’s sliding glass door, the sun making his skin a bright chalk white. I’m trying to read a treatment work pamphlet, but I keep getting distracted. Brian’s been outside doing close-quarters calisthenics for the past half hour, in fifteen degree weather, wearing nothing but an Under Armour muscle shirt and a pair of Hawaiian print athletic shorts. He’s been doing push-ups (standard, one-handed, triangle and wide grip), dips, sit-ups, and pull-ups. He’s filled up his luggage with all of the heaviest knick-knacks in our room—alarm clocks, snow boots, textbooks—in an attempt to create some makeshift dumbbells. Whenever we go outside for our daily walk around the complex, Brian–since he isn’t allowed to be out of eyesight of the staff–simply runs in place like a jogger waiting to cross the street. There is something off about Brian.

It’s not so much that he wears shorts in sub-freezing temperature and compulsively exercises. It’s the way in which he does it. I had a friend in grade school who wore shorts everyday for a year, come hell or high water, just to spite his mother. There was a definite rationale and purpose behind his actions, no matter how misguided they were. With Brian it was like he was incapable of processing the fact that cold weather necessitated pants and sweaters in the first place. He couldn’t acknowledge that tromping about in his bare calves in four inches of snow was a departure from what everyone else around him and in the rational world does when it’s cold outside. Brian was what Voltaire had in mind when he said common sense wasn’t so common. He wasn’t developmentally disabled enough to be placed into special schooling, but he wasn’t quite quick enough to keep up with everyone else. After living with him for about a week he off-handedly mentioned that he was a tad autistic in the way you might tell someone about a movie review that you had just read.

Brian’s appearance, like his thought processes, was difficult to categorize. He was half white and half Chinese, with his Caucasian side taking more than its fair share of his features. There wasn’t any one aspect of his appearance that looked specifically “Asian,” just a weird feeling that there was some Chinese influence peaking out from within him. His hair was buzzed into a tight fade in preparation for what he was convinced would be his occupation after rehab. In fact, Brian was dedicated to turning himself in a Navy Seal, which to some extent explains his compulsive exercising(1). I tried explaining to him that the Seals weren’t too keen on developmentally disabled drug addicts fresh out of treatment, but I don’t think the message got through. The only thing that Brian was worried about with joining the Seals was that he would have to kill people, which he was very uncomfortable with. Seeing as the primary qualification for becoming a Navy Seal is being a ruthless, surgically precise killing machine, I had trouble thinking of a niche that Brian could find in the special forces.

Brian’s other desired career path was slightly more realistic in the semantic way that Mussolini was slightly less evil than Stalin. Sticking to his self-avowed bread and butter—beating the ever-loving hell out of people—Brian was training himself to be a professional mixed martial arts fighter. While he wasn’t a very good striker or grappler, had the fighter’s IQ of a sorority pledge and, counterproductively, liked getting hit, Brian did have one thing that all great fighters need: a solid chin. In boxing, a fighter’s chin doesn’t refer exclusively to his physical chin, but to his ability to take punishment. In this respect, Brian had a mammoth, Kirk Douglas-like butt of a chin. While the rest of us would groggily wander down to morning meditation, aching for our morning cup of sort-of caffeinated coffee to spring us to life, Brian would wake himself up by throwing haymakers at his temples or, when that simply wouldn’t do, slamming his forehead into his desk repeatedly. Despite the suffocating spatial restrictions imposed upon patients, Brian some how managed to run so much that blood blisters the size of strawberries formed on his feet and, splattering his socks a milky red. Every morning I would watch Brian mummify his feet in duct tape to keep the raw wounds from rubbing deeper away from skin and towards tissue. Never once did I see him grimace.

On his last night before heading out to a halfway house in Long Beach, one of my roommates, Alex—a Cuban-American from my therapy group with some (hopefully) temporary brain damage from incessant MDMA use—requested a little late night entertainment. With no television, a shitty clock radio and a general distaste for literacy, Alex decided that fight night was the only recreation available to us and convinced Brian to have a slap boxing match with Jake, the fourth patient living in our room. Even with Brian’s self-avowed wealth of Jujitsu knowledge, the tale of the tape clearly favored Jake, who was the oldest looking fifteen year-old I had ever seen in my life. He was about 6’ 3” with the build of a dockworker and a five o’ clock shadow that needed shaving before lunch. Had he and I walked into a bar together, there’s no doubt that I would have been the one they carded 99% of the time. However, all of this physical maturity was betrayed whenever Jake opened his mouth to reveal the emotional maturity of a nine-year old child with a nine-year old’s vocabulary and a nine-year old’s insight.

That being said, immaturity doesn’t have much to do with the fight game and Brian was giving up about forty pounds and four inches to Jake. The match, set for three, three-minute-long rounds and refereed by Alex and myself, would use the standard Marquess of Queensbury Slap Boxing Rules:

1. Only slaps using the flattened palm or back of the hand are admissible
2. No excessive screaming, yelping or expletive shouting so as not to alert the staff because it’s supposed to be lights-out and we’ll get in trouble.
3. Face slaps are worth double.
4. Loser has to introduce himself at the next group therapy session as, “Hi, I’m _____ and I’m a pussy.”

Now, I thought that Brian’s self-proclaimed MMA pedigree, no matter how exaggerated, would be enough to make this a competitive bout. I thought wrong. Jake, while mentally challenged in many respects, had the common sense to sit back and use his reach advantage to thwap his opponent upside the head from afar. Brian’s patience wore thin pretty quickly and, flustered, he charged at Jake with his head down like a underfed bull, at which point Jake would olé and smack him so viciously that he crumpled to the ground. This pattern repeated itself for nine minutes, with Brian getting more and more furious with each shellacking. By the end of round three Brian’s face was the color of uncooked steak. Of course, being impervious to pain, Brian was more jacked up than ever,wouldn’t stop ranting and raving about going just one more round while Jake watched, perplexed and uninterested like a Great Dane getting jawed at by a Jack Russell. Against Brian’s masochistic wishes, we all decided it was best to turn out the lights and try to get some sleep. Brian was definitely not down with this.

Not thirty seconds after shutting off the lights and turning in for the night, this mini-thunderclap shot out from Brian’s bed. I raised my head up, looking for Brian but not seeing anything but different shades of black as my eyes transitioned in the darkness. Then again—thwock! It was the sound a fastball makes when it lodges itself in a catcher’s mitt. The next sound was softer, muted, it’s impact lost in something sickening. “Brian, what the fuck are you doing?” I asked. No response, just more thuds and thwaps and thwocks. As my eyes adjusted, I could see Brian, sitting upright at a ninety-degree angle against his backboard, spastically bludgeoning himself in the face. We all sat still in our beds, transfixed by how little sense all this meant. Any initial humor we derived from this self-flagellation disappeared as Brian hit himself with increasing vigor and started murmuring to us or to no one in particular, “I like it. I like hitting myself. I do it all the time,” each statement punctuated with a fresh blow.

After a good minute of abuse I jumped out of bed and flipped the lights back on, jumping on Brian’s bed with Jake to pin his arms to his sides and calm him down a bit. “You need to stop this, man. This isn’t funny or cool or whatever,” I told him. “It’s just fucking stupid.” Jake chimed in, telling him that, “punching yourself in the face is kind of retarded,” an inadvertently apropos statement considering that Brian, being somewhat autistic, was retarded in social development and communication. Five minutes later, Brian had calmed down enough to the point where we felt somewhat safe turning the lights off again. We heard a few more errant smacks coming from his bed, but nothing prolonged or vicious enough to stir me out of bed.

When we woke up the next morning, Brian’s face was pretty haggard, covered in greenish-black and blue splotches and showcasing a black eye that had puffed up enough to force him to squint a little with one eye. He was taken down to the medical services unit in lieu of breakfast and spent the majority of the day in one-on-ones with a litany of therapists, counselors and administrators, all of whom were lucky if they got more than a blank stare in return. There’s a saying in recovery that you can’t be too dumb for Alcoholics Anonymous, but you can be too smart. The moral lesson in the axiom being that intellectual gymnastics can be used to circumvent some of the most beneficial aspects of recovery for the sake of ego, pride and the like. While I agree with the latter half of that sentiment—that being overly cerebral can be a harmful avoidance tactic—I don’t agree with the first half, although “dumb” may be a blatantly inappropriate modifier in this situation. Rather, you can be too developmentally disabled or mentally ill for AA.


(1) For having such an anti-authoritarian and lawless membership, I found an alarming number of addicts in the Hazelden Center for Youth & Families who expressed the desire to join the armed forces—and more specifically, special forces squads like the Navy Seals or Army Rangers. To a man, all were deluded enough to believe that the military’s background check would surreptitiously gloss over their extensive narcotics history and that Uncle Sam was chomping at the bit to recruit chain-smoking, recovering drunks with GEDs and a laundry list of active prescription anti-psychotic and anti-depressive use. On the whole, the guys who expressed a desire to enlist did so for either (a) the comfort that a strictly regimented lifestyle would bring to their otherwise chaotic existence or (b) the intent of becoming John Rambo.


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